Should Higher Ed Change Who Transports Students Suffering a Psychiatric Crisis to Hospitals?

One in three college freshmen reports having a major mental health disorder, with major depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse issues being among the most common, according to the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. With the prevalence of mental health struggles on campus, there may be a need to safely transport students experiencing a crisis to the emergency room for further evaluation. These evaluations have typically been conducted by a campus police officer, but many colleges or universities are looking for more appropriate options to assist students during these challenging crises, including mental health counselors or the local fire department. 

Understanding the College Mental Health Crisis

The college mental health crisis is a worsening epidemic. In 2019, a survey of U.S. college students found that rates of severe depression, suicidal thinking, and rates of self-injury more than doubled over the previous decade, as per Reuters. Researchers analyzed data from two large annual surveys spanning the years 2007 to 2018 and found that broad indicators of mental illness including overall depression, anxiety, low flourishing, and suicidal planning or attempts were on the rise, especially in the second half of the data sets.

Related Blog: What Role Does Campus Safety Play in Mental Health on College  Campuses?

The deepening of the crisis around 2012 or 2013 correlates strongly with the introduction of smartphones, social media, and other stressors. The amount of students struggling with mental health issues on campus has continued to increase in recent years, and counseling centers are struggling with student needs, as per NPR.

Why Counseling Centers Are Over-Burdened

Dr. Marta J. Hopkinson, a psychiatrist and director of mental health at the University of Maryland in College Park, told NPR that schools are finding traditional means inadequate for addressing rising demand for care. “Most schools can't expand enough to meet the demands of all the students who want and need psychotherapy," she said. “We're all working to prevent these kids from falling through the cracks."

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While colleges have made progress in providing mental health treatment on campus, recent research suggests these resources alone are inadequate. When students are unable to access resources on campus or fear doing so due to stigma or potential expulsion from campus, it can exacerbate crises and ultimately require medical intervention.

It’s critical that colleges and universities take proactive measures to de-stigmatize care, improve mental health policies to allow students to seek appropriate medical attention, and attempt to prevent these incidents from occurring. However, it remains a necessity to provide proper transport to a hospital or other medical facility during an acute emergency. 

Related Blog: Addressing Graduate Student Mental Health Concerns

Who Should Transport Students to Psychiatric Hospitals? 

In October, Stanford University announced that the Palo Alto Fire Department would transport students experiencing a mental health crisis to the hospital rather than the campus police, as per Campus Safety Magazine. This is a change from previous policy, in which a campus police officer would evaluate a student and then the Stanford Department of Public Safety (DPS) would conduct an emergency room transport. The shift comes at a time where many colleges and universities are reevaluating which responsibilities of campus safety can be better carried out by specialists or other departments. 

Stanford University Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole and Director of Counseling and Psychological Services Bina Pulkit Patel wrote in the announcement that the change is long-expected, as the college has been “actively working to find new options to help support students through what is a challenging time.”  The press release wrote that the decision came after deliberating with student leadership, and that: “moving forward, and effective immediately, DPS will respond, but most transports to a hospital for a protective 5150 hold will be provided by an ambulance, generally from the Palo Alto Fire Department.” 

How Behavioral Health Partnerships Can Reduce Hospitalizations 

In addition to the new transport protocol, Stanford University is also working on alternative solutions to mental health crises on campus, as well. Brubaker-Cole and Pulkit Patel wrote that Stanford University is: “evaluating additional alternatives -- such as a multi-disciplinary mobile crisis team -- for addressing student mental health concerns on campus. These opportunities will take more time to develop and will require the identification of additional resources.”

Treatment in an adult mental health facility, which can be an upsetting place, can be a traumatic experience for a college student, especially someone in the early stages of a mental illness. The decision to change transport during a mental health crisis comes as schools explore alternative options to 5150 holds or other psychiatric hold measures. 

Related Blog: Could a Mental Health Wellbeing Course Benefit Campus Safety?

Certain programs, such as the Behavioral Health Partnership at Queens College, allow universities to collaborate with local hospitals to set up behavioral evaluations catered to college students lives, providing emergency evaluations, counseling, or in-patient treatment, according to NPR. The facility is set up in a dorm format, only admits college-age individuals, and provides more targeted care to get students back to baseline. 

These programs, and additional measures to de-escalate psychiatric crises on campus, can help colleges or universities better connect students with appropriate resources and get individuals back to their education more quickly. 

Leveraging Technology to Improve Mental Health Response

One important aspect of treating mental health on campus is access to resources. A campus safety app can connect students with critical resources on campus - the tool centralizes all vital campus health information, including phone numbers for the health center or counseling services, in a local directory. The in-app resource center can also keep students up-to-date on relevant community information, such as the policies or procedures for navigating a mental health crisis, or the hours for the campus counseling center. Making these resources more available can be one part of a plan to de-stigmatize seeking care on campus and help connect with students off campus and studying remotely.

 

The app can also connect students directly with response teams - whether that is a campus safety department, mental health crisis intervention, or local fire department - during a crisis or emergency. The faster a student can be connected to first responders, the lower the risk of hurting themselves or escalating the emergency situation. The app - which facilitates two-way conversations between first responders on campus and students - can allow students to ask questions before seeking evaluation, further de-escalating a potentially fraught emergency.

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Mary Kate McGrath
Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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